Yesterday at noon, a text message popped up on my phone: “TF has soft opened. Wanna go?” And with that, I put all of my scheduled work on hold. I jumped in a car and was off to Universal City. Transformers: The Ride doesn’t open at Universal Studios Hollywood until May 25th 2012, but yesterday the theme park was running a technical rehearsal.

Theme parks usually hold grand opening celebrations, complete a red carpet with celebrities and the usual group of press folk. And after that, on an advertised date, the masses go at it. But before any of that can happen, theme parks hold “soft launches”. This usually begins with employee nights, allowing workers at the theme park to test out the new attraction. After that, they open the ride on select days and hours to annual pass-holders, and sometimes later, the general public. The point of these previews are to test the rides against large groups, to fine tune the technology and hopefully spot problems before the real advertised grand opening.

After the jump you can read my reaction and watch a video blog I recorded after experiencing the ride alongside /Film correspondent and theme park expert Reza Lackey. I have also included an image gallery featuring photos from outside the attraction and inside the queue.

Video Blog Reaction:

A version of the ride opened at Universal Singapore in December of last year. The new ride replaced two outdated Universal Hollywood attractions: the Backdraft and Special Effects Stages (the special effects stage was updated and relocated to the upper lot). Transformers: The Ride features a ride system simular to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando Florida. Twelve passengers board each ride vehicle, which travels on a track from room to room, each featuring huge screens with high definition 3D projectors. The vehicles act as motion simulators, with the ability to spin 360 degrees, and from what I estimate, rise to elevate three stories off the ground at points in the ride.

The ride introduces us to EVAC (our ride vehicle), an Autobot from the cartoons and toy series, that has been fully realized by ILM in in the style of the Michael Bay trilogy. Bay consulted on the ride, but didn’t direct it. But the ride definitely takes place in his Transformers universe. As Reza says in the video blog reaction, Transformers: The Ride is the best possible Transformers movie. It forgoes the lazy foreplay, forgets all the stupid humor, and is balls to the wall action from start to finish.

The ride places you in the middle of a fight between the Autobots and Decepticons, who are trying to steal a shard of the AllSpark. You experience this city assault from every level, from the streets, from inside a skyscrapers, in a underground subway tunnel and more. You’ll feel completely immersed in the action, and the ride is so cleverly designed that the transitions from scene to scene will make you believe that you’re not just watching 3D projections, but are somehow traveling through a city warzone. It feels much more impressive than Islands’ Spidey Ride as the characters, while still completely computer generated, feel more reality-based than the heavily cartoon-stylized Marvel villains.

The ride features the complete line of 4D effects you would expect, heat, fire, water, fog and smoke. The fire/heat effect is my favorite moment from the attraction as it translates Michael Bay’s style to a real life experience, complete with an ultra slow motion effect you’ve seen in the movies, and which shouldn’t work in reality — but somehow feels real in the moment.

I went on the ride three and a half times. I say three and a half because one of the rides stopped working correctly half way through. Two of the other rides featured miscalculated moments: not hitting the fog effect on time and sometimes the car would be turned, completely missing the closing Optimus segment. Of course, this much is to be expected with a technical rehearsal — but hopefully the problems will be ironed out by the grand opening. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is notorious for breaking down and suffering tech issues on a regular basis. I hope that Universal was able to learn some lessons on that ride and make this next generation experience less problematic. If not, this could easily join Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin and Toy Story Midway Mania as the least reliable theme park rides in Southern California.

When the ride works, even at 95%, its easily the best ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. But with the sole competition coming from Jurassic Park: The Ride, the Revenge of The Mummy roller coaster or the short and overrated Studio Tour stop on King Kong: 360 3-D, it might not be saying much. But it will have competition when the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey Orlando-transplant opens in the park in 2015/2016.

The ride’s queue is very well designed for a Universal attraction, but doesn’t feature the fine details you would expect from the Disney parks. You feel as if you’re inside a futuristic concreate bunker military base. One room features a high tech vault holding the Allspark shard, a scene which makes you feel like you’re inside the world of the movie. Another room houses a piece of a Decepticon. If I have any complaint it is that the ride features no visible animatronics. A life sized animatronic Optimus Prime would have been awesome. A life sized Peterbilt 379 which transforms into a life-sized animatronic Optimus Prime would have been the best thing ever. Both of these things would probably have cost considerable amounts of cash, and might not even be technically possible. But I hoped for some kind of animatronic Transformers action, and got nothing.

Universal is currently offering “Buy a Day Pass, Get the rest of 2012 Free” offer which makes it real easy and cheap for California locals to check out the new attraction. Its a lot of fun and I plan on going back (especially now that I have an annual pass). I’m not sure I’d travel across the country just to experience it, especially if you’ve been to the park before.

Photos from the Attraction:

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